John A Roebling Suspension Bridge

John A Roebling Suspension Bridge


Construction on the Suspension Bridge began in 1856

Condensed from an article by Jim Reis from his book Pieces of the Past Volume 1 and reprinted here with his permission.


Kentucky farmers in 1815 were looking for a way to market their products to Cincinnati.  Military men were looking for a way to move the militia quickly into the wilderness to put down Indian uprisings.  But it took more than 50 years and the Civil War to bring to fruition the idea of a bridge between Kentucky and Cincinnati.  The idea of bridging the Ohio River was conceived as early as 1815 expressed in an article by Daniel Drake entitled Picture of Cincinnati. In it Drake said enthusiasm for the project was high, but execution is certainly remote".

Plans were drawn up eleven years later for a Y-shaped bridge which would extend from the foot of Broadway Street in Cincinnati to the mouth of the Licking River.  At that point the bridge would branch off, one leg connecting to Covington and the other to Newport.  The first real push for a bridge came in 1839 from Lexington businessmen.  They felt a bridge would help them complete with their riverfront rivals in Louisville and Maysville.  Lexington officials felt goods from the North could then be shipped directly to Lexington via the existing turnpike now known as US 25.

Even though the steamboat operators were against the building of a bridge, the bridge committee asked for the input of two bridge engineers, Charles Ellet and Johann August Roebling.  Only Roebling was interested.

Roebling had been trained at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin but left Germany in 1831 because he felt the system there discouraged innovation.  The bridge plan Roebling submitted to Cincinnati officials in 1846 was a 36 page document calling for a suspension bridge from Garrard Street in Covington to Main Street in Cincinnati.  The Kentucky legislature approved a charter for the project in 1846, but steamboat operators convinced the Ohio Legislature to reject the idea.

In 1856 Amos Shinkle was named to the board of directors of a company that had been formed to push for the construction of a Covington-Cincinnati bridge.  Six months later, contracts were let for the two stone pillars that form the base.  The piers were constructed on a foundation of 13 layers of heavy oak logs that were crossed, bolted together and then cemented into place. Large limestone blocks were placed on the foundations.  The foundations for the piers were completed but a national bank panic tightened the money supply.  By 1859 the bridge company had run out of money and defaulted on its bond interest payments.  Construction stopped.

The Civil War began.  In 1862 a Confederate Army advanced on Northern Kentucky.  A temporary pontoon bridge was built to move more than 60,000 troops from Cincinnati to create a defensive perimeter along the hilltops of Northern Kentucky.  In 1863 new investors were found and work resumed on the Suspension Bridge, employing Roebling's new process of using wire cables instead of traditional chain cables.  At 11 am October 4, 1865 a 27 inch wide foot bridge for bridge workers was completed and the Ohio River was spanned.

On December 1, 1866 the wooden deck of the bridge was completed and the bridge was open to pedestrians.  More than 46,000 people bought tickets to walk across the bridge that day and about 120,000 others made the trip the second day.  The bridge opened to vehicular traffic on January 1, 1867.  Within the next four years, an estimated 4.5 million people crossed the bridge.

A private company continued to operate the bridge until Kentucky purchased it in 1954 for $4.65 million.  The state continued to collect tolls until November 25, 1963 when the toll booths were torn down to coincide with the opening of the Brent Spence Bridge on I-75.  The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 17, 1977.  On March 24, 1983 the bridge was designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark and in July 1983 the state Transportation Cabinet officially renamed the span the "John A Roebling Suspension Bridge".


Photo submitted by Jeff Weimer



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